In Brief – When Gerald M., the child of a previously incarcerated father and a mother who had abandoned him, was removed from his godmother’s home, a child placement agency moved him into the care of a non-relative foster parent instead of considering returning him to the return of custody of the child to his birth father. The child placement agency then moved to terminate the father’s parental rights, even though adequate reunification services were not provided to the father during his incarceration. The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief on behalf of the father.
Procedural History – On September 1, 2005, the Circuit Court of Baltimore City granted the agency’s petition to terminate the father’s parental rights. The Court determined that this would be in Gerald’s best interest based on the fact that, in 1999, Gerald had been adjudicated “a child in need of assistance” after his mother abandoned him while his father was incarcerated. Gerald’s father filed an appeal in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland.
Question Presented – The Brennan Center’s brief, filed in 2005 in the Court of Special Appeals, argued that terminating Gerald’s father’s parental rights was not in the child’s best interest. The brief argued that the child placement agency failed to address the unique circumstances of parental incarceration and acted in conflict with federal and state law requiring child placement agencies to facilitate reunification between parents and children. The brief also argued that the agency created undue burdens to the process of reunification and threatened the well-being of the child.
In Detail – Gerald M. lived with his birth parents until his father was incarcerated in May 1999 for a non-violent drug offense and Gerald was subsequently placed in the custody of his aunt. When the aunt became unable to care for him, a child placement agency, following Gerald’s father’s recommendation, placed Gerald in his godmother’s custody. While in prison, Gerald’s father maintained daily telephone contact with his son. He also obtained his high school diploma and completed rehabilitation, job training and drug treatment programs. After being released on parole, Gerald’s father began visiting his son at the godmother’s home without the child placement agency’s involvement.
The child placement agency moved Gerald from his godmother’s home into the care of a non-relative foster parent without considering returning him to his birth father’s custody and despite the child’s expressed wish to maintain contact with this father and his godmother.
In May 2003, the agency moved to terminate Gerald’s father’s parental rights due to his alleged non-compliance with the agency’s permanency plan for his son. In September 2005, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City granted the agency’s petition to terminate the father’s parental rights. The Court based its decision on a finding that because Gerald was designated “a child in need of assistance,” termination of parental rights would be in Gerald’s best interest.
The Brennan Center was a signatory on an amicus brief filed in the Court of Special Appeals of Maryland in September 2005 when Gerald’s father appealed the case. The brief argued that a child placement agency must consider the unique circumstances surrounding parental incarceration before moving to terminate a previously-incarcerated parent’s custody rights. Failure to do so would be in conflict with federal and state law requiring child placement agencies to facilitate reunification between parents and children; would create substantial obstacles to reunification and unnecessarily risk permanent dissolution of the child-parent relationship; and would threaten the emotional wellbeing of children separated from their incarcerated or previously-incarcerated parents.
The Brennan Center’s brief argued that children of incarcerated parents should not have to risk permanently losing their relationships with their fathers because child placement agencies fail to provide reunification services during parental incarceration. In order to best serve children’s interests, efforts must be made to facilitate the preservation of the emotional relationship between children and their incarcerated parents and reunify families upon release and successful rehabilitation.
The brief was authored by Alternative Directions, Inc., Center for Children of Incarcerated Parents, Center for Fathers, Families, and Workforce Development, Children Having Incarcerated Parents, Inc., Family and Corrections Network, Justice Maryland, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, National Coalition for Child Protection Reform, Power Inside, Public Justice Center and Women’s Prison Association. The Brennan Center participated in an “of counsel” status.